Category Archives: New Testament

Wisdom of Solomon: The Righteous One

We’re in a great section of the Office lectionary as we got into both the Wisdom of Solomon and Colossians today. The Wisdom reading sparked a thought I wanted to share…

Some of my early work on the New Testament revolved around the notion that, when we turn to the gospels, the remembrances of Jesus there are not—could not be—flat historical narratives no matter how much modern academics wish they could be. Instead, I contend, we do not read the gospels rightly if we are not at least aware of the ways that Early Christian worship and devotion connected to the way that the early Church remembered Jesus and wrote his story. They understood him—rightly—to be the promised one of whom the Law and Prophets spoke. As a result, when they thought of him and when they looked at Scripture, they saw a profound congruence; as a result, when it came time to put stylus to wax and record these memories for later generations, what they wrote and the languages, images, and specificities with which they wrote were profoundly shaped by the Scripture that pointed to him. Indeed, my first master’s thesis was on the use of the Psalms in the Markan Passion narrative; I argued that the Church’s liturgical practice was an important aspect of how that central story was shaped at its earliest recoverable level. (no—you can’t read it: it sucked. The idea was good, by the execution was poor…)

I’m trying to be careful here in how I phrase this. What I’m saying is that the Scriptures shaped their remembrance due to an essential congruence. What I would reject is the notion that Scriptures were applied to him outside of any such historical congruence. That is, I don’t think the gospels were written to fulfill the Scriptures regardless of whether the “historical Jesus” so acted…(which is what some scholars would have you believe).

The Wisdom of Solomon passage from today speaks wisely on a number of levels. Here it is in the NRSV:

But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company. For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back. “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. (Wisdom 1:16-2:24)

There’s an unfortunate tendency of many modern people to think of ancients as unsophisticated because they’re not, well, “modern.” The literary framing of this belies any such notion… The focus on the unrighteous gives us access to their logic; showing us the righteous man through the eyes of the unrighteous is a fascinating technique that allows the writer to both expose a fallible thought process and to depict how the righteous man appears to the external world.

First off, this passage speaks so deeply to me because of a discussion M and I were having around the radio. We’ve both been struck by the number of songs on Top 40 radio are “grounded” philosophically in a reckless hedonism. If there were any question about it, this bit from the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that the logic of these modern “artists” is as old as the hills… It rang as true in the Hellenistic age when Wisdom was composed as it does now.

Second, in this ageless description of the conflict between righteous and the unrighteous, the Church saw in the generic image of “the righteous man” a clear congruence with a certain specific righteous man. I can’t read this passage without lining it up with the passion of Christ as recorded in the gospels. And, indeed, that’s not an accident. I don’t see any way that the gospel writers could have written their account without this and the “passion psalms” spinning around in their heads. Likewise, we can’t do the gospels full justice if we don’t have these same points of reference floating around in our heads.

As I used to tell my students when I taught NT and preaching (paraphrasing Augustine, of course), the single best way to be a better interpreter of Scripture is to read more Scripture. Today’s reading not only underscores that point but also underscores our need to read the Apocrypha, most particularly the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, and the Ezra/Esdras additions. While Jerome and generations of Protestants my look down their nose at them, these books were Scripture as far as the Early Church was concerned (and as much of the current Church still is!).

Considering The Malice of Herodotus and Biblical Genre

One of the things that I find myself saying again and again to both clergy and parishioners is that moderns in general and modern Americans in particular seem to have real genre issues when it comes to the Bible.

Every act of reading happens within an interpretive frame. That is, we start making interpretive assumptions from literally the time we pick up a book until we close it and put it down. These interpretive assumptions shape what we find and how seriously we take it. Any book cover with a ripped bare-chested dude hovering over a voluptuous female automatically shunts the book into a certain interpretive category that shades what we find therein. This isn’t good or bad—it’s just how the interpretive process works.

I believe that one of the most important interpretive frames that we normally assume is genre—what kind of text we think we’re reading. For the most part this works when we pick up texts from our time because from the time we begin to read, we learn genre cues. Sometimes they’re book covers, sometimes they’re stock phrases: Once upon a time… Three nuns walk into a bar… We can automatically categorize these with no problems. It’s when we come to texts from radically different times and cultures that we run into problems. Like—biblical texts.

I see three major issues with our interpretive assumptions about genre when it comes to the Scriptures First, the genre cues aren’t the ones familiar to us. What does “Once upon a time…” look like in Hebrew? Are we completely missing the genre cues an ancient author would have thought so obvious? Second, the genres into which we map and categorize texts are not necessarily those of the past. Furthermore, the categories that do overlap don’t have the same contours. More on this below… Third, because of our inculturation as modern Christians, we have inherited “Bible/Scripture” as a distinct genre of its own that, in effect, tends to mentally “overwrite” the other genre options. Thus, when we pick up the chronicles of the reign of Esarhaddon and pick up 1 Kings, we tend to place them in different genres: “ancient history cum propaganda” and “Bible.”

The problem raised by these category errors is that we mistake the nature and intent of the texts. Trying to learn history from the visions of the Book of Daniel is analogous to trying to learn history from a bodice-ripping romance novel. Yes, it has a historical-ish frame, but that’s so not the point!

There are two steps that we can take as readers of the Bible to help overcome this issue. The first is simply being aware of our interpretive assumptions. Once we realize that we are making assumptions, we can examine them and get a sense of how on target they may be. Unquestioned assumptions aren’t always wrong, but it’s always better to examine them especially if something like your immortal soul is on the line…

The second step is to become more familiar with ancient genres from the inside. It’s when we start reading comparable and comparative ancient texts that we start getting a sense of what an ancient genre looked like, how authors of that time understood it, and what the stock tropes and genre cues really are. And that brings us to The Malice of Herodotus.

When considering the New Testament and texts analogous to it, one of my favorite authors is Plutarch. Essayist, moralist, and biographer, anyone who works with the gospels should, in my opinion, be familiar with his works. Folks with a classical education will be familiar with his essays on the lives of the great Greeks and Romans. However, he also wrote a host of other essays on moral, religious, and literary topics. I recently came across the Malice of Herodotus, a text of his that I had never encountered before. This is a great text because it exposes an educated author contemporary with the writing of the New Testament thinking out loud about the craft of writing history and biography. (Not a common thing, although Lucian does it too in his aptly titled The Way to Write History—he’s a satirist so watch your step…)

Plutarch is annoyed because of the way that Herodotus paints his people, the Boeotians, in a bad light because they sided with the Persians in the eponymous Persian Wars. As a result, he accuses Herodotus of malice and in making his case he gives us an interesting set of both explicit and implicit genre rules for the category of history in his day. This online version of On the Malice of Herodotus helpfully pulls out to the side Plutarch’s eight major charges against Herodotus.

What I take away from this text is an even greater certainty that for Plutarch history is a sub-discipline of moral philosophy. Note how many of the signs of malice pertain to the depiction of vice and virtue… In particular, I draw your attention to sign 6. This is, in my estimation, the great difference between modern (and especially popular/populist) history and classical history:

An historical narration is also more or less guilty of malice, according as it relates the manner of the action; as if one should be said to have performed an exploit rather by money than bravery, as some affirm of Philip; or else easily and without any labor, as it is said of Alexander; or else not by prudence, but by Fortune, as the enemies of Timotheus painted cities falling into his nets as he lay sleeping. For they undoubtedly diminish the greatness and beauty of the actions, who deny the performer of them to have done them generously, industriously, virtuously, and by themselves.

Digging into Plutarch’s claim here (especially when you couple it with sign 5), this criterion looks like nothing more than an explicit preference for moral instruction over against the facts of history. That is, Plutarch argues that whenever motives are attributed they should always be the most noble even when other motives are available and even more likely. If there’s a conflict between the two, Plutarch is willing to sacrifice “historicity” for the sake of moral edification…

What does this mean for us as readers of the New Testament? It reminds us that we cannot assume that the purpose of historical narrative in Antiquity is the same as ours. There is overlap—no doubt—but modern categories of what is considered edifying and necessary for “good” history cannot be mapped directly onto ancient texts.

Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha for Medievalists

Laying Out the Territory

A medievalist comrade has put up a reading plan to get better acquainted with the Biblical Apocrypha and Psuedepigrapha, and asked for comments. As a Medievalist with a PhD in New Testament this question is right up my alley. Here are a few thoughts…

First off, definitions. Recall for a moment that the bulk of our Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Generally speaking, we tend to agree that the biblical books were put down in writing in the period between the 8th and the 3rd centuries BC with some material (whether oral or written) going back as far as the 10th century, and a few pieces perhaps older still. After the Exile to Babylon (587-515), the main language of most of the people was Aramaic and we see traces of this in Daniel where the bulk of the book is actually in Aramaic.

Because of the destructions, scatterings, persecutions, etc. a fair number of Jewish folks no longer lived in the Holy Land. Those who lived outside tended to speak the same language as everyone else in “the civilized world”, i.e., Greek. Thus it’s no surprise that the educated community in the intellectual capital of Alexandria translated their Scriptures into Greek, various parts at various points, in and around the 2nd century BC. And this is where our story really starts: apocrypha is the term generally used to describe the books that appear in the Septuagint (LXX), but not the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament.

The pseudepigrapha is the term used to describe religious writings from this same general period (3rd century BC to—oh, say—the 5th century AD) that present themselves under the name of a figure from biblical history.   Daniel is the only such book in the OT Canon; there are arguments over whether some of the NT Epistles are pseudepigraphal as well, particularly Jude and 2nd Peter.

A related but different term is apocalyptic; this refers not to a distinct body of literature but to an attitude or theological stance that tends to use a grand style of rhetoric with quite a lot of mythic, poetic, and allusive (sometimes elusive) language to communicate theological thoughts and themes, generally to a people who perceive themselves to be in persecution. This kind of rhetoric is quite common in the pseudepigrapha.

Conventionally, we scholar types tend to talk about “OT Pseudepigrapha” and “NT Pseudepigrapha”. The first refers to books purporting to be by OT people and events, the second about NT people and events. This isn’t always a helpful division, though, especially when trying to grapple with the popular religion of the first centuries BC and AD. I’d rather we discuss whether texts are Jewish or Christian Pseudepigrapha and the short answer is that most of what has survived is either Christian or has been Christianized. Thus, it tends to teach us far more about early Christianity (a gentile phenomenon after the first couple of generations) than about 2nd Temple Judaism—1 Enoch being the major exception. [“Second Temple Judaism” is a technical term describing the competing and conflicting bodies of belief that grew out of “Hebrew/Israelite religion” in the period between the Exile and the Fall of Herod’s Temple (AD 70)]

Ok—now we can actually turn to the question at hand… I’ll begin by identifying some major collections of literature, then talk about them in relation to the task at hand. Looking at Brandon’s reading list, it does fall fairly naturally into groups based on the four primary source collections he has identified and one he identified earlier but didn’t include in the primary source section:

  • OT Apocrypha
  • OT psuedepigrapha (OTP)
  • NT pseudepigrapha (NTP)
  • the Gnostic materials from Nag Hammadi (NH)
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS)

All of these are fascinating documents. I have, at one point or another, read through these. But before we look at each one, a fundamental question that must be wrestled with is that of purpose. Why are we looking at these? Is it because they’re inherently interesting and cool (which they are…)? Or is it to gain a solid foundation in the extra-biblical religious literature that formed early Christianity and shaped medieval discussions and understandings of religion?

If it’s the former—have at it! If it’s the latter, a certain amount of judicious pruning of the list is in order. There’s a lot of great stuff here—but it’s a lot of stuff!

Ranking them in the order of importance for medievalists and those with an interest in Church History they would look like this:

  • OT Apocrypha
  • NT pseudepigrapha
  • OT psuedepigrapha
  • the Gnostic materials from Nag Hammadi
  • the Dead Sea Scrolls

I love the Dead Sea Scrolls, but, generally speaking, wrestling with them will provide a whole lot of work with very little pay-off for those interested in Christianity. The Dead Sea Scrolls are—for the most part—the literary leavings of a particular sect within Second Temple Judaism. They were a priestly group who were all about wresting control of the temple away from the current top dogs (i.e., the Sadducees) and doing liturgy right! (heh—sound familiar?) Students of the New Testament find these writings instructive because they give us an intimate look at a community that was parallel to the early Jesus movement and that gives us a better sense of the milieu from which Jesus and the Jesus movement came. That is, here we have an apocalyptic reform movement that understands itself and the historical events within which it is involved through the lens of scriptural prophecy. So—knowing these texts are key for understanding what the fringes of Second Temple Judaism were like, but as a completely different group with completely different aims, don’t teach us anything directly about early Christianity. [And here I’m making an artificial though useful distinction between the “Jesus movement” and “early Christianity/the early Church” as the first is a movement within Second Temple Judaism while the second is predominately a gentile movement outside of Second Temple Judaism.]

The Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi are, again, a really cool set of texts. Very diverse texts, they represent a fairly broad snapshot of Gnostic documents circulating in 3rd century Egypt. Many of the major schools are represented (as far as we can tell) and, as a result, they can’t necessarily be seen as a coherent body of documents that were ever intended to be believed together.  Actually defining who and what the gnostics were is tricky and has occasioned no little argument since people started arguing about this stuff. Suffice it to say, the gnosticism of the Nag Hammadi codices is a movement outside of Christian orthodoxy as defined by canon, creed, and apostolic succession that draws on biblical writings, Neoplatonic philosophy, and other sources to construct a theological system where the divine soul must be freed from the evils of a material creation.

Gnosticism is important for Church history more for what it produced than what it was. Gnosticism was the most important force that acted both externally—most visible through the Manichees—and internally—most visibly in the Marcionites—on the Church that required it to express definitions and self-understandings about what made a community or certain expressions of belief distinctively and identifiably Christian.

Much of our early literature against heresies and heretics was spawned by various forms of gnostics and the need to explain how their beliefs were a distortion of the Christian understanding that 1) creation is of a good and loving God and that 2) Jesus is God who willingly entered into and clothed himself in creation by taking on our human nature.

So, gnostics and the Nag Hammadi stuff is important, but more for their effect on the Church Fathers than for their own content. That having been said, gnostic movements popped up in medieval Europe in groups like the Bogomils and the Cathars but, as far as I know, they were led in that direction more from seeds in the canonical writings and in creation-denigrating forms of Christian asceticism than from surviving gnostic documents.

As far as the Psuedepigrapha goes, again, this a wildly diverse set of writings enclosed within rather arbitrary covers. Again, as I said above, these can be grouped broadly in Jewish and Christian writings. Within the Charlesworth volumes—which are the single best collection of the OTP—the chief representatives of Jewish material would be 1 Enoch in vol 1 and the Fragments in vol 2. If you want to do serious work on these texts, though, Stone’s edition of 1 Enoch is far superior and Holladay’s texts on the Fragments of Hellenistic Jewish Authors is more complete and comprehensive (full disclosure—I indexed Holladay’s index for the Aristoboulos volume).

As far as Christian pseudepigrapha, the most important material is the narrative material. Things like the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Adam directly informed medieval understandings of the prophets and patriarchs. The Gospel of Nicodemus and related documents are essential reading for anyone with pretensions to Christian medievalism. The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles circulated for centuries and sections of these were enshrined in The Golden Legend, popular preaching, and martyrologies. The Apocalypses of Paul and Thomas are represented in Old English; the Protoevangelium of James as read in and through the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew is essential for understanding medieval speculation and thought around the Blessed Virgin Mary, and most art around the BVM that references her childhood is entirely incomprehensible without it.

The least sexy of the above collections is truly the most important, though. The OT Apocrypha was not apocrypha to most patristic and medieval Christians—it was Bible. In particular Sirach/Ecclesiasticus was one of the preeminent wisdom books used by theologians and it figures heavily in medieval understandings of conduct and the sacraments (especially almsgiving and its relation to both penance and forgiveness). Wisdom of Solomon is another biggie for the same reason. You cannot be a credible (liturgical) medievalist if you cannot recognize the Additions to Daniel at a glance. Daily Office-praying Anglicans have a big leg up here as we’re used to seeing them in the context in which the medievals saw and heard them: these would be the Song of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men which are canticles 2/13 and 1/12 respectively.The narratives of Tobit, Susanna, Judith, and the Maccabees are clearly important as well.


The place where I would start is with a new work that will help you locate Christianity within the main strains of Jewish and Greco-Roman thought, Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity by Luke Timothy Johnson. I’ve promised a review of this but it hasn’t been written yet… One of the great achievements of this book is showing where the communities of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices fall in terms of how they understood religion and religious practices in relation to emerging Christianity.

This will give you both a foundation and a very helpful conceptual framework rooted in a host of primary sources. Next, go to the texts.

Start with the Apocrypha. If you haven’t purchased a decent academic study Bible in a while, the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (NRSV with Apocrypha) is probably the best one out there and is the one I’d recommend. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt to glance at your Douay-Rheims translation of the Vulgate as you go…

For secondary literature on the Apocrypha, I’d stick with just one book, Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. This hits the wisdom portions that are most crucial.

The bulk of your time in this investigation needs to be in the NTP. Hennecke is good and a classic; I use J. K. Elliott’s The Apocryphal New Testament. The Acts and the Gospels deserve the bulk of your time. Seriously. As you finish each act, go to the respective section in the Golden Legend and see how much derives from these apocryphal materials. Or, when you finish the Mary material, get your hands on the Heiland and see how much of it comes directly from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew.

As far as secondary sources go, I don’t know much good stuff on these… Johnson talks about these acts a certain amount in Among the Gentiles; this would probably be the best place to read through the essays in Powell & Scragg’s Apocryphal Texts and Traditions in Anglo-Saxon England.

Then move to the OTP. 1 Enoch is just an all-around great read; Jubilees and the Sibylinne Oracles are also important for getting a sense of this literature. Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs is good for the moral dimension of the psuedepigrapha.

My standard introduction to this material would be John J. Collin’s Apocalyptic Imagination. I haven’t read VanderKam & Adler’s The Jewish Apocalyptic Heritage in Early Christianity but knowing VanderKam, it’ll be terrific and well worth your time.

As for the others—read what you’d like as time allows, but I’d really focus on the first three categories before moving there.


I just have to say this… One of the reasons why this stuff is cool and attractive is because it’s outside the boundaries: it’s what Christians weren’t suppose to read. It gives you some great anti-authoritarian cred to read and know this stuff. But—honestly—most people who are interested in Early Christianity (and Christianity in general) would be far better served by actually reading all of the Old Testament and knowing the Canonical Scriptures before moving outside the canon. Similarly, while the Nag Hammadi stuff can be a great head trip, its not nearly as useful as knowing the homilies of Leo, Gregory and Bede.

Don’t read the outside stuff at the expense of knowing thoroughly the inside stuff: the Scriptures and the Doctors of the Church.

Random Saturday Morning Bible Thought

I’d love to do—not a true commentary per se—but a close reading that puts 1 Corinthians into conversation with Ephesians.

1 Corinthians is the preeminent Pauline book on the practicalities of church life: what to do about conflicts and factions in parishes, especially those exacerbated by different personalities and different ways of being spiritual.

Ephesians is the preeminent Pauline book (and, yes, it is most certainly Pauline whether Paul penned it in its entirety or not) on the theology and mystical nature of the church: who it connects into the mystery of Christ, how individuals are joined in it, the ultimate nature and purpose of the church.

Hmmm. Now thinking that, I wonder how a joint reading of Colossians and Galatians would look…

Reading Ephesians

I’ve been reading through Ephesians for lectio and its taking me forever to get through it.

(And that’s a good thing.)

I keep getting caught on passages and will sometimes just sit there and chew on a few words for my entire allotted time. In particular right now, I’m fascinated by the section at the end of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter 4.

Paul’s prayer at the end of 3 from 14-21 describes for me what the interior life of the Christian should look like. That is, the experience of divine power confirmed and made manifest in love. Furthermore, this power and grace leads naturally to the section from 4:1-16. Knowledge, power, and love do not exist for their own sake nor for the individual’s sake. Rather, all of these are directed into building the entire community into a community founded on the humility and love of Christ which is a power unrecognized by worldly power.

I do believe the single worst mistake that one could make in reading Ephesians generally and these sections in particular is to misread the grammatical number of “you”. All of the “you”s in this section are plural. Paul is not speaking to individuals here but to us collectively.

Furthermore—just as in 1 Cor—4:11-12 on “leadership” roles in the church must be read within the whole. The entire function of these roles is to serve the basic needs of the community as a whole especially the full growth into Christian maturity. Shades indeed of James 3.

On Wise and Foolish Virgins

The Postulant wonders about the Gospel appointed for St Cecilia. Here’s the best and most complete answer I can give…


In the lectionaries of the Benedictine Revival, Matthew 25:1–13 was utilized for a general class of occasions: feasts of multiple virgins. By Ælfric’s time, there was a fairly well defined set of saints venerated in common by the Western Church. This sanctoral kalendar was born from attempts to standardize liturgical practice across the West—particularly by Charlemagne and the rulers after him—but does not represent in any way the establishment of a centralized control or process over who was named a saint and how it occurred. As a result, the addition of new saints to the kalendar was not an uncommon occurrence in an early medieval monastery.

As the new saints were added to the yearly round, they required liturgical texts so that they could be properly venerated. Thus a generic set of texts were appointed to cover a variety of saintly classifications: apostles, martyrs, confessors, bishops, abbots/abbesses, and virgins. These appeared in both singular and multiple configurations. Practically speaking, the multiple appeared most often in the case of groups of martyrs who were killed together. The various liturgical books had a set of the most necessary of these—though not necessarily standardized—referred to as the Commons of the Saints.[1] The Leofric Missal, for instance, contains commons for the vigil and feast of one apostle, a feast of multiple apostles, vigils of holy martyrs, a feast of one martyr, a feast of multiple martyrs, vigils of holy confessors, a feast of one confessor, a feast of multiple confessors, a feast of virgins and martyrs, and a feast of several saints in common.[2] Paul the Deacon includes similar categories including materials for a vigil of one apostle, a feast of one apostle, a feast of one martyr, a feast of multiple martyrs, a feast of multiple confessors, and a feast of multiple virgins. Ælfric, in turn, provides in the Catholic Homilies for a feast of one apostle, a feast of multiple apostles, a feast of one martyr, a feast of multiple martyrs, a feast of one confessor, a feast of multiple confessors, and a feast of multiple virgins.[3]

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is appointed for a general kind of liturgical occasion, the common of multiple virgins, and also appears early at the feast of some virgin martyrs, most notably Agatha. The logic here is not too hard to trace—but is more interesting than it first appears. The obvious correlation is that the occasion celebrates virgins who, by virtue of their sanctity, have entered into the final consummation and stand now in the presence of God and the Lamb as intercessors on behalf of the faithful; the passage itself features multiple virgins who enter into the marriage banquet that is surely a symbol of eschatological rejoicing.

This interpretation is well attested in the liturgical variety of the church. Hesbert’s great collection of antiphons and responsaries from medieval Europe contains four antiphons[4] and twelve responsories[5] that use this passage. Most of them connect it explicitly to virgin saints. Sometimes exegetical decisions are already encoded into these texts. Responsary 7228 which circulated with two different verses, is a prime example:

You will not be among the foolish virgins, says the Lord, but you will be among the wise virgins; taking up the oil of gladness in their lamps, going out to meet him they will meet the Bridegroom with the palms of virginity.
(Verse 1a): But at midnight a cry was made: Behold, the Bridegroom comes, go out to meet him.
(Verse 1b): But coming they will come with exultation, carrying their sheaves
Response: Going out to meet him they will meet the Bridegroom with the palms of virginity.[6]

The interpretation identifying the oil as “the oil of gladness” is interesting and has two complementary possible sources. The early medieval church read VgPs 44 narrating the marriage between Christ and women religious—“the oil of gladness” is mentioned in v. 8. The gloss may be a direct reference to the psalm. Alternatively, Augustine made the connection between the psalm and Matt 25 in De Div Quaest. 83.

Verse 1b represents another exegetical option. While Verse 1a uses a text from the Matthean parable, Verse 1b introduces a passage from the Psalms (VgPs 126:6). According to Augustine, the psalm refers to almsgiving; the sowing of the seed is the giving of alms, returning with sheaves speaks of the eschatological rewards of the almsgiving.[7]

Another antiphon also with two options for the verse explicitly cites VgPs 44 in one of them while in the midst of using the image of the lamps from Matt 25:

The five wise virgins took oil in their vases for their lamps. But at midnight a cry was made: Behold, the bridegroom comes, go out to meet Christ the Lord.
(Verse 1b): Listen, daughter and see, and incline your ear, for the king has desired your beauty.
But at midnight a cry was made: Behold, the bridegroom comes, go out to meet Christ the Lord.[8]

This responsaries specifically identifies the bridegroom as Jesus and stitches together VgPs 44:11a, 12a into a harmonious whole. This move mutually reinforces the interpretative connections between Matt 25 and virgin saints and VgPs 44 as well.

However, there is a second correlation that could be masked by the more obvious relationship between the virgins in the passage and the ascetical class of virgins in the Western Church. Indeed, this second correlation only becomes visible when lectionary selections are viewed across categories. The parables of the gospels are found in various places in the most prevalent Anglo-Saxon lectionaries, but the parables of Matt 13 and 24–25 are particularly appointed for the saints. In a representative Anglo-Saxon lectionary, the Gospel list contained in London, BL, Cotton Tiberius A.ii,[9] Matthew 13:44-52, a cluster of three kingdom parables, is appointed eight times, all for feasts of virgins and their companions.[10] Likewise the parable of the industrious servant in Matt 24:42-47 is appointed six times, generally for feasts of popes and bishops.[11] Our parable of the wise and foolish virgins is appointed for five occasions—again, virgin saints.[12] Finally the following parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-23) appears just four times also on feasts of bishops and popes.[13] Thus, there is an overwhelming preference to assign the Matthean parables of the kingdom to saints. As a result, there would be no doubt in the early medieval mind that the protagonists of the parable would be saints of some kind.

[1] This Commune Sanctorum is typically found after the listings for the temporal and sanctoral cycles. Sometimes the dedication of a church is included with these as well.

[2] Vigilia sive natali unius apostoli [f. 204r.], natali plurimorum apostolorum [f. 204v.], vigiliis sanctorum martirum [f. 205r.], natali unius martyris [f. 205v.], natali plurimorum martyrum [f. 206r.], vigiliis sanctorum confessorum [f. 206v.], natali unius confessoris [f. 207r.], natali plurimorum confessorum [f. 208r.], natali virginum et martyrum [f. 208v.], and natali plurimorum sanctorum communiter [f. 209v.].

[3] These are homilies CH II.33-39.

[4] Antiphons 3730, 4543, 4953a, 4953b.

[5] Responsaries 6151, 6760, 6806, 6807, 6809, 7139, 7228, 7496, 7667, 7668, 7803, [“Ecce” is unnumbered].

[6] Non eris inter virginis fatuas, dicit Dominus, sed eris inter virgins prudentes; accipientes oleum laetitiae lampadibus suis, obviantes obviaverunt Sponso cum palma virginitatis.

[7] NPNF1 8.605-6 Enn. Ps. 126.10-11.

[8] COA 7496: Quinque prudentes virgines acceperunt oleum in vasis suis cum lampadibus. Media autem nocte clamor factus est: Ecce sponsus venit, exite obviam Christo Domino.

V. B. Audi filia et vide et inclina aurem tuam, quia concupivit rex speciam tuam. – Media.

[9] This is Lenker’s Qe.

[10] St Lucia (Dec 13), St Prisca (Jan 18), Octave of St Agnes (Jan 28), St Pudentiana (May 18), St Praxedis (Jul 21), St Sabina (Aug 29), and Sts Eufemia, Lucia, Geminianus (Sep 16) and for the Common of Several Virgins.

[11] St Marcellus (Jan 16), St Urban (May 25), St Eusebius (Aug 14), St Augustine of Hippo (Aug 28), St Calistus (Oct 14), and the Common of One Confessor.

[12] St Agnes (Jan 21), an alternate for the Octave of St Agnes (Jan 28), St Agatha (Feb 5), St Cecilia (Nov 22), and the Common of Several Virgins.

[13] St Leo (Apr 11), St Martin (Nov 11), St Silvester (Dec 31), and Common of One Confessor.

Long-Winded Response on Celibacy at Cafe

My latest piece is up on the Cafe today and a follow-up piece will appear tomorrow. It’s in response to Fr. George Clifford’s response to my earlier comments on celibacy.

I engage his points on celibacy, but I’d like to flesh out my initial issue a bit more. That is, he contends—bringing in Elaine Pagels—that since there was a diverse group of religious beliefs all invoking Jesus that there was no “normative” or “real Christianity” to which we can look back and, as a consequence, we all have to find our own spiritual way.

I’ve heard this line or things like it far too often in the Episcopal Church (and other mainline Protestant denominations) to let it go.

You’ll note that the piece over there is long, especially by Cafe standards. Well, what follows is the section that I cut to get it slimmed down enough to be that long…


Fr. Clifford begins with curious section focused on Elaine Pagels. I have not read the book to which he refers (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent) but the logic which he cites is quite familiar to me concerning the multiplicity of early Christianities.

Stepping back, whenever readers note points of conflict or discontinuity within a literary corpus (like the scope of early Christian literature), they have some options about how they will read these materials. Do we 1) read them in such a way to highlight an underlying continuity among them or 2) read them in such a way to highlight the discontinuities? Let it be known that points of conflict and discontinuity appear in the writings of the New Testament and in early Christian literature; this point is not under dispute. So how shall we read them?

Historically, the reading communities that make up the Church have chosen to read the writings of the canon in continuity with one another. We acknowledge differences between, say, Paul and the letter of James, but choose to read them as complimentary trusting that together they reveal the inseparable nature of authentic Christian faith and its flowering in works of Christian love. Strands of academic scholarship upon early Christian literature—sometimes in conscious opposition to the Church’s strategy—have chosen to highlight the discontinuity between the theologies and writings, most famously in the important work of F. C. Baur (d. 1860), founder of the Tübingen school and one of the fathers of modern biblical criticism. A focus on discontinuity has been a central characteristic of biblical scholarship since Baur and, as the discipline was interested in the reconstruction of the history of early Christianity, often went so far as to posit different communities embodying the various discontinuities found in the text. Thus, they posited distinct and different groups of Jewish Christians, Johannine Christians, Pauline Christians, Petrine Christians, Gnostics of various stripes, etc., all existing in discontinuity with one another. In certain academic circles, this positing of communities has grown into a mania where imaginary communities are constructed at the drop of a hat based on hypothetical documents—Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel being a representative example.

One difficulty with these multiple reconstructions is their basis in history. Aside from parsing discontinuities in texts, our only sources of data on actual historical communities are the writings of the “early Church Fathers”, preeminently Irenaeus and Eusebius. I put “early Church Fathers” in scare quotes because those who argue for a multiplicity of nascent Christianities will argue that the terms “Christian” and “Fathers” are loaded categories: they assume a coherent body called “the Church” and they assume that certain authors are “Fathers”—privileged authorities. And indeed, responsible readers must note that these early writers were writing for the explicit purpose of defining who was “in” and who was “out”, who taught a “legitimate” version of the faith and who did not. Yes, these very writers are witness to the fact that many different groups considered themselves to stand in relation to the teachings of Jesus and the writings of the New Testament.

Now—here’s the key point. Irenaeus writing around the year 180 or so about the various movements and their relation to the beliefs of his community passed along three basic marks that distinguished what his community and those aligned with them believed: a canon of Scripture, a creed or “rule of faith” that insisted upon particular interpretive principles when reading the canon, and apostolic succession—that the teachers of the community had been taught by teachers who had been taught, ultimately, by the disciples themselves. (In his own case, Irenaeus had been taught by Polycarp who was taught by the Apostle John.)

By this time, then—AD 180—there was a common teaching subscribe to by communities across the Mediterranean who distinguished themselves over and against other religious communities by the canon, creed, and apostolic succession. And now the kicker…turn to page 876-879 of your Book of Common Prayer and you’ll find the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral and a resolution from the Lambeth Conference of 1888 stating that the marks of the church are the canon, the creeds, and the apostolic succession (Historic Episcopate) with the explicit addition of the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.

Yes, there were a variety of early religious communities who claimed a connection to Christ and his teachings. But as 21st century Anglicans we affirm that we stand in historic relation with one of them—the one with whom we share a canon, creeds, and teachers

Intellectual Lightbulb

I just figured out how to put into words why I’m unlike many of my colleagues in Biblical Studies:

I don’t see biblical interpretation as an end in itself. Rather it’s a means for forming Christians according to the mind of Christ—forming holy habits—as communicated by preaching and enacted in liturgy and ascetical theology.

That’s not to say that all of my colleagues somehow think that biblical interpretation is an end, but that I feel the need to go all the way to the application end where not all of them do. This isn’t a critique of biblical scholars, it’s just a realization of why my scholarship and interests head off in different places.

Another angle from which to approach it might be this: Approaches to preaching, liturgy, and ascetical theology that aren’t firmly grounded in the Scriptures will range from the anemic to the futile.

Hatin’ on the NRSV

This weekend’s Gospel foregrounds one of my pet peeves about the NRSV; it’s translations can be down-right misleading in ways that obscure some fascinating stuff. In this Sunday’s reading they fooled around with Matt 22:20 in a way that covers up a great sacramental reading of the story.

NRSV: ‘Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”’



KJV: ‘And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?’

NIV: ‘and he asked them, “Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?”‘

The Greek word variously translated as ‘head”, “image” and “portrait” is eikon–the same word from whence we get the word “icon”. I much prefer the translation “image”. In a similar way, the second is epigrammata. “Inscription” works fine in my book. The problem is that the NRSV attempts to give a precision that is not present in the original. As a result, it closes off the possibilities for readings that are available with the other (better) translations. Preeminently, it obscures the fact that the word really is image, something that I think factors theological in Jesus’ retort. The coin made with the image of Casar belongs to Caesar—however the human beings made in the image of God belong to God! Especially if those humans have been marked with an inscription—like, say, a cross upon the forehead—the sealing of baptism.

I think that’s a sacramentally rich reading of the passage—but one completely hidden by the NRSV.

On Contexts and Biblical Interpretation

Huw and I have been having an interesting conversation at the Episcopal Cafe that I think is worth expanding. It began with a discussion of the parable of the workers in the vineyard with the occasional infusion of the parable of the wicked tenants. In this exchange I was focused mostly on the first… Here are some of the pertinent comments to date:

From me:

I think in speaking about the “generosity” of the vineyard owner of Matthew 20 it’s important to note that the Scripture doesn’t call him “generous”. That’s a liberty taken by our translators; rather the word is “good” (ego agathos eimi)…

I don’t think a traditional meaning “doesn’t fit” the meaning of the text at all. Actually, I think it works better when we consider not only the content of the parable but its literary context as well.

If we look just before this parable we see the account of the young wealthy man who asks what “good thing” (ti agathon) he must do to be saved to whom Jesus responds that “there is one who is good” (ho agathos) (Matt 19:16-22).

Then Jesus speaks of the difficulties of the wealthy who wish to enter the kingdom [“easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God…”] (Matt 19:23-30).

Then we get this parable about the householder who hires laborers (Matt 20:1-16) which ends with the householder saying, “Why do you cast the evil eye [on me] because I am good?”

How do we interpret the householder given the rest of the discussion around wealth and the good? Is he a negative example that confirms the difficulty of the rich to do good or a positive exemplum of one who uses wealth as a manifestation of the nature of the kingdom?

If he is a sign of evil what, then, is the sign of the kingdom thus displayed?

I agree that we must always be on our guard against the domestication of the sharp edge of the Gospel. I just disagree that this reading strips the story of a Gospel challenge.

From Huw:


Donald – As you noted in your reply, “It is exciting when scripture pushes us to a kind of arguing that seems rabbinic”.

When I first read your post my guts knotted up a little. Your reading of the text comes at such a different angle to what is traditional that I felt as if the floor had dropped out on an exciting carnival ride. THAT’S what I like about this sort of Rabbinic Conversation! It’s like a roller coaster with the Holy Ghost at the switch as long as we trust each other.

Derek, your description of the text works well with my ex-Orthodox comfort level – which is therefore suspect. Thanks for that tracing of “good” through those passages. But does that literary context say anything about what *Jesus* intended by this story? Or does it tell us more about what the Matthewite community wanted to focus on in the hearing of this passage? Mind you – I don’t think it’s possible to make that choice in a satisfactory way; and I think such a realisation opens the doors to the possibility that there are many other ways of reading this text.

And this is even more true if the traditional reading is based, in circular fashion, on a context that simply expects the traditional reading.

It’s the use of Allegory that is the problem here: was Jesus intending Allegory? Did the Early Disciples hear Allegory? We may never know in this world, but certainly the Church Fathers saw nearly *all* the scriptures as conveying Allegory. Should we do likewise? Even if we follow in their footsteps, does that mean that only one allegory drawn from the text is right? If we decide to use their method do we need to duplicate their results?

One traditional allegory on the “Walking on Water” has Peter getting out of the boat showing us what happens when we dare leave the Church. It goes on to say that Peter was at fault for daring to leave the boat at all! After the Great Schism this reading becomes laden with political overtones. It’s no wonder we never hear it in the west outside of the Orthodox Church. I head it every year when that Gospel came up. And when Peter cries, “Save me” Jesus puts him in the boat (ie, back in the Orthodox Church). It has nothing to do with Peter “loosing faith” when he tried to Walk on the Water. Attempting to walk away from the boat and the other disciples was, in this reading, the sin.

Which reading is right? Does one need to be right and the other wrong? Do we need to pick one over the other other than as needed for a sermon in a given situation? Which one is intended by the Gospel writer? Which one would have been heard by his first community? Or would they have heard just a cool story? Do we need to know those answers beyond prying new, interesting readings out of the text? 

From me:

Hey Huw,

Yes, a both/and reading is typically preferable over an either/or. I do think, however, that certain readings are to be preferred based on the principle of edification. I need to be challenged by readings like the ones Donald and Deirdre offer. At the same time, others need to be challenged again by the meanings that endure in the traditional readings. I do not accuse Donald or Deirdre of this at all, but there are some who believe that the Bible was entirely misunderstood until the 1960’s and I think that’s a mistake.

As for the parable and its setting, What you and Donald are doing is stripping away one setting and replacing it with another one. The one that you are discarding comes from the same general time-period and culture as Jesus himself, written by a people far more familiar with their cultural and interpretive practices than we are. The setting that you are replacing it with is a 21st century recreation that some scholars think might be possibly what Jesus was like. Or not. Personally, I’d rather work with the setting that we actually have and, since Matthew is the only gospel who preserves this parable, it’s the only one we have to go on.

From Huw:

Derek – ” I’d rather work with the setting that we actually have”

If by that you mean *only* the literary setting, then ok. As I said I thank you for drawing out the line on “agatho” through the preceding several scenes. It was something I wouldn’t have noticed without your sharing.

But, again: that only tells us about the text. Not about the community or the intent of the writer(s). It tells us nothing about Jesus. We don’t even know if the community would have heard those several passages read together. Even our assumptions about who that community was are mere guesses.

Any attemt at a cultural reading or a setting (New or Old) is a reading-into the text of material that isn’t necessarily there. Our choice, as you’ve noted, is to find out if it is a reading towards the edification of the people – and ultimately to their deification in Christ.

From me:

But, again: that only tells us about the text. Not about the community or the intent of the writer(s).

True. And the text is what we confess as part of the mystery that is the Word of God–not the community nor the intention of the writer(s).

It tells us nothing about Jesus.

Au contraire, my friend… It tells us how Matthew and possibly other pre-Matthean sources communicated who Jesus was. It may not give us historical “facts” about Jesus but it does tells us how the author and the transmitting community understood the ethos, aims, and point of Jesus. That’s pretty important in my book.

Speaking simply, we make meaning from a text based on two primary factors: content and context. I think that Huw and I both acknowledge that the more malleable of the two is context and the discussion here is not about what one context the text belongs in, but what we should consider the primary context (or contexts) and which should be secondary, tertiary or beyond. So we agree that there are  multiplicity of legitimate contexts; the normative context is the one up for grabs. 

From a scholarly point of view, I’m a literary guy. Thus, my intention is to give the text pre-eminence over other factors. Theologically, I do believe that the biblical text is the Word of God, inspired by God. I see it as something more a kin to a hypostatic union where it is simultaneously a limited human word and a revelatory divine word rather than following a dictation model. As a result of these convictions, I argue that the normative context for any pericope/section of text is its immediate literary context, the larger context of the book in which it is found and the wider context of the whole of Scripture. Another primary context for me is the history of interpretation—how the Church has understood, incarnated, and wrestled with the passage through the centuries.

I see Huw and Donald (who started this discussion) assigning a primary—perhaps normative—context of historical Jesus research to the parable. That is, they are suggesting (and do correct me if I’m reading you wrong, Huw) that a (if not the) central context for the parable is based in Jesus-as-he-was rather than the gospels which are texts that transmit not the pure Jesus—Jesus-as-he-was—but Jesus-as-the early-church-viewed-him.

I take issue with this. I’ve been trained in the New Testament guild. That means several semester-long in-depth seminars on the history of New Testament research and on the whole “Quest for the Historical Jesus” problem. I know where we’ve come from and where we are now. And frankly, I see most historical Jesus research as problematic. We have very limited data that we can say is “historical” in nature. Our main sources were not primarily interested in giving us the kind of historical data that we are after. As a result, most of the research greatly outstrips what I believe our sources give us. Whenever that happens, we begin wandering into the realm of fantasy. Historical reconstruction as wishful/hopeful thinking. Albert Schweitzer was the first to expose this for what it was at the turn into the 20th century and while we’ve progressed into new areas and sociological models he couldn’t have dreamed of, his central charge still holds true. The Jesus we go looking for is the Jesus that we find.  I do not believe that the sources that we have—the gospels—contain the data for us to access Jesus-as-he-was and therefore any attempt to do so provides Jesus-as-we-wish-him-to-be mistaken as Jesus-as-he-was. And that, in my opinion, is why using historical Jesus research as a central context for understanding the parables is misguided—we’re not giving them a contemporary context, we’re giving them a modern context that masquerades as historical.

Having said all that, it’s only fair t note that the parables have been a central battleground for historical Jesus research through the 20th century because one of the few things that everyone actually can agree on is that Jesus taught in parables. (Naturally, we get into major arguments when various folks start pronouncing on which parables belong to Jesus and which are from the early church–or, worse yet–which pieces of which parables are from Jesus and which from the early church…) In this discussion, I’m not denying the validity of the work of folks like Jeremias or Perrin who did some careful and important work on the parables with either implicit or explicit ties to historical Jesus research, I just don’t think that even their careful research (not all of which I agree with either…) gives us enough of a solid context to justify replacing the context we do have with the one we reconstruct.